The Bleakest Endings in Horror

There’s a difference between a bleak ending and a tragic one. Tragic endings often show the death of a character the viewer has perhaps grown to love, but this death doesn’t necessarily project a feeling of irreversible damage on the whole. Death may be the end for some in a tragic ending, but there is still promise that the sun will rise in the morning and the show will go on.

Bleak endings, on the other hand, can leave the viewer with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. They can trigger that one spot in your stomach that aches with the unconscious knowledge that all life will end, and likely end alone and in terror. These endings take our hearts and crush them, take our expectations and bury them in a shallow grave, and leave us with the looming shadow of dread. Perhaps the film gives the viewer a glimpse at what lies after the credits, and it’s a nightmare that can’t be woken up from. Maybe it’s the rare occasion that something worse than death befalls a character. No matter the details, bleak endings leave their mark and are rarely forgotten.

Here are some of my favorite bleak endings in horror films.

Caution: spoilers may lie ahead.

Incident in a Ghostland

Incident in a Ghostland

A film that has elicited much criticism, Incident in a Ghostland is an ultraviolent fairytale from Pascal Laugier, the brilliant director who brought us Martyrs. The story centers on two sisters who move into a secluded house with their mother, only to be attacked on the first night by a pair of sadistic lunatics.

Incident in a Ghostland is a horrorshow containing sexual assault, physical torture, and mental anguish. After the monsters of the story kill the girl’s mother, they hold them prisoner and dress them up as dolls for their own perverted and mentally unhinged purposes.

Within the scenes of brutality, there is the beauty that is inherent within the film. As with most extreme films, it is easy to overlook the strong themes and focus solely on the traumatic elements, but Incident in a Ghostland explores the extent to which a mind will go to protect itself from trauma. The second act twist is a whiplash, pulling the rug out from an audience already on edge. And though some may be able to find hope in the ending, the truth remains that the agony the sisters experience is a never-ending loop, as is that of many of those who survive abuse.



Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is told in split narratives and alternates masterfully between the past and present. Siblings Kaylie and Tim are reunited eleven years after a terrible family tragedy as Tim is released from the Psychiatric Hospital at the very moment Kaylie has tracked down The Lasser Glass, a mirror she holds responsible for destroying their lives.

In an attempt to prove that it was the Lasser Glass and not their father who was responsible for the violence inflicted upon the family, Kaylie organizes an experiment in their childhood home. She sets up cameras to record the mirror’s manipulation, but it soon becomes clear that the same power that had a hold on their parents all those years earlier remains. As the pair relive their childhood trauma, Kaylie and Tim realize too late that they are doomed to repeat the past.

Oculus is a dread-filled movie that flirts with the idea that we are never truly able to escape our past and will be forced to repeat the cycle of inherited trauma. The Lasser Glass takes the power and agency from Kaylie and Tim, instead feeding them lies and tricks of the mind to coerce them back to the place of powerlessness they experienced as children. The ending is heartbreaking, with any hope sucked out of the final minutes like pressure through a hole in an airplane.

Hunter Hunter


Hunter Hunter, the 2020 horror thriller from Shawn Linden, is a slow-burner soaked in isolation and tension. Joseph, his wife Anne, and their daughter Renee live deep in the woods hunting for their food, sourcing water from the nearby river, and keeping separate from society for reasons unexplained. When Joseph suspects that a dangerous wolf has reappeared on his property, he ventures out to track and trap the beast before it imperils the family’s way of life.

As he investigates, Joseph stumbles across a horrific crime scene, hinting that what is out there in the woods is a worse threat than any animal. When Joseph goes missing, Anne is left alone with Renee, forced to rely on her skills to keep them fed and warm. Hunter Hunter relies heavily on atmospheric tension and the built-in dangers of living in isolation when an emergency arises. Anne is a capable and strong woman, but when a hurt stranger shows up on her property, she makes a decision that catapults the film into its third act, one of desperation and pointless cruelty that encapsulates what it means to be alone.



A gorgeous and sweeping cinematic feat, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia takes the very essence of depression and hopelessness and gives it an epic face in the form of a rogue planet hurtling toward earth named “Melancholia.” Inspired by Von Trier’s depression, Melancholia is yet another film focused on family. Depression can often feel catastrophic, and Melancholia gathers the angst of family dynamics with the uncontrollable nature of mental illness and bashes it against the walls of a real apocalypse. The film is layered and unique and it takes a patient viewer to appreciate the use of slow-motion and classical music, but don’t be fooled, this is a horror film and the ending is nothing if not the bleakest of the bleak.

The Lodge

The Lodge

Another horror film with themes of isolation and mental illness, The Lodge has a dreary color palette and a low, droning score. The viewer is drawn slowly into the story of Grace, the sole survivor of a doomsday cult, and the children of her fiancé as they travel to the family lodge for Christmas. The kids are suffering from the unprocessed grief of their mother’s suicide six months prior and refuse to give Grace an inch as she attempts to connect with them. It is painful to watch the kids as they are practically forced by their father to move on and the result is a cruel prank that leads to the utter breakdown of Grace’s mental health. The ending of The Lodge is beautifully ambiguous and has eerie religious imagery, and despite its bleakness, the viewer would like to believe that ultimately Grace has found what she needs to be at peace.

A Serbian Film

A Serbian Film

To be fair, A Serbian Film is a major downer in almost every frame. Little happens that isn’t bleak, but for the majority of the film, the violence and sexual depravity are so prevalent that by the time the ending comes around we think it can’t get worse than it already has. We would, of course, be wrong. It’s best to avoid too many details of A Serbian Film, though for those curious about extremity in horror, as it is one of the most notorious films on the list.

28 Days Later (the original ending)

28 days later

Before zombie films were exhausted and filled with cliché tropes, Danny Boyle delivered a truly inventive twist on the sub-genre with 28 Days Later. Rather than continue with tales of the undead, 28 Days Later saw a “Rage” virus unleashed by well-meaning activists from a medical experimental lab during a raid intending to release captive primates. As the title suggests, 28 days after the initial outbreak, Jim wakes up alone and naked in the hospital to an abandoned Great Britain.

Jim eventually meets up with several other survivors in an attempt to find help and a safe place to hunker down until the infected humans starve out. In the theatrical ending, Jim, the badass who he eventually falls for, Selena, and Hannah, the young girl who has lost her father, find their way to a desolate island while Jim recovers from a wound inflicted by villainous military men. Just before the credits roll, the group hears a plane overhead and runs into the field where sheets have been sewn to say HELLO, signifying their presence. The camera sees the sign from the plane, and we can assume that they have been seen and will be saved. What a nice ending!

However, there are two alternate endings on the DVD release, both of which see Jim dying from his wounds and no evidence that the women are ever saved. It could be assumed from those endings that Selena and Hannah were left alone and without food, likely to die of starvation or an attack. Grim.

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Written by Jerry J Sampson

Jerry Sampson is a freelance writer, horror writer, screenwriter, and editor. Her love for film and the horror genre leads her to explore and question the darkness that lies in the shadows of human existence. She studies the concept of inherited trauma and finds that theme coming up unconsciously in much of her work. Jerry finds shelter in writing, reading and watching sinister stories that haunt and terrify. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and cat-child.

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